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Oxford aldermen pass additions to public assembly ordinance

The Oxford Board of Aldermen approved an ordinance amendment they say is aimed at making public events safer for participants and the public.

The aldermen waived the third reading and the 30-day waiting period for the amended ordinance to go into effect. By law, the board is required to give two readings so long as one is a public hearing.

During the aldermen’s regular Tuesday meeting at City Hall, a public hearing was held on adding additional verbiage to the city’s existing Parades, Public Assemblies and Special Event ordinance.

The added wording would prohibit anyone in a parade or other public assembly — or anyone within 500 feet of the event — to carry, wear any glass bottles, balloons filled with anything other than helium or air, body armor, bricks, stones, projectile launching equipment — including water guns, operational gas masks or open flame.

Those watching or within 500 feet of the permitted public assembly will also be prohibited from engaging in any activity that would constitute a substantial hazard to the public safety or would materially interfere with or endanger the public peace or rights of residents. They will also not able to carry any length of metal, lumber, wood or similar material for purposes of displaying a sign, poster, plaque or notice.

Only posters that are one-fourth inch or less in thickness and two inches or less in width will be allowed. Signs must be made from paper, cloth or cardboard.

The proposed ordinance also says that masks cannot be worn if the intent is to intimidate people or to hide their identity from law enforcement.

Currently, permits for events should be filed 30 days prior to the event. City Attorney Pope Mallette said verbiage was also added since the first reading two weeks ago that gives the chief of police authority to waive the 30-day time frame if unusual circumstances prevented the application to be filed 30 days prior, that the nature or conduct of the event would not be dangerous or harmful to the public health, safety and welfare of the residents, and that the police department and other city services have adequate time to process the application and plan for the event, or the time, route or size of the event will not substantially interrupt traffic.

The ordinance amendment also grants the chief of police authority to change the location of an event if he or she determines the original location is unsafe and could present a dangerous situation for the participants or public.

Mayor Robyn Tannehill said Oxford serves as a gathering place for many public events — bike races, public forums, parades and protests and that Oxford welcomes that role.

“However, after watching the events in Virginia unfold, we knew as city leaders we need to be proactive in protecting our citizens, as well as their First Amendment rights,” Tannehill said. “… Our intention is not to restrict what people say or how they say it – we welcome people to share their thoughts … But I don’t think a gas mask or a lit torch is necessary for anyone to have their voice heard.”

No one spoke out for or against the changes; however, an Oxford High School senior asked what steps the Oxford Police Department and the city are taking to stop a vehicle driving into a crowd, like what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, where one woman was killed during a demonstration in regards to the removal of a Confederate statue.

Mallette and Tannehill replied that the police can put up concrete barriers and take other precautionary actions if the police feel there is a heightened concern or change the location of the event.

Alderman Jason Bailey made the motion to waive the third reading of the ordinance and the usual 30-day period for the ordinance change to go into effect, finding it was in the interest of public safety.

The ordinance changes were approved unanimously by the board and will go into effect immediately. Alderman Mark Huelse was not present at the meeting.